Happy Veterans’ Day! We are accustomed to seeing athletes’ heroics in the arena, but many have also served in real wars. So today let’s celebrate just a few of the many (many!) athletes of the last century who set fame and fortune aside to serve their country:
Pat Tillman: The safety played four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, selected All-Pro in 2000. In 2002, eight months after 9-11, he volunteered for the Army Rangers and served in Iraq and Afghanistan (leaving behind his $4 million contract). He was killed on April 22, 2004 by friendly fire. He was awarded a Silver Star, Purple Heart and a posthumous promotion. His number was retired both by the Cardinals and his college, Arizona State.
Jackie Robinson: The legendary “42” was drafted in ’42–into a segregated Army unit. He attended Officers Candidate School (with help from boxer Joe Louis, see below) but was court-martialed for refusing to sit at the back of an Army bus (he was acquitted). He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and became a six-time All-Star, 1949 National League MVP, World Series champion, and Hall of Fame member.
Patty Berg: Berg became a professional golfer in 1940 and was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. However, in 1942 she left the game to serve as a World War II Marine lieutenant. Her 15 major title wins remain the all-time record for most majors by a female golfer.
Roberto Clemente: The beloved Pittsburgh Pirate joined the Marines in 1958, and remained with the reserves even as his major league career took off. He earned two World Series titles, 12 Gold Gloves, National League MVP and scores of other honors. Yet on Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash in Nicaragua while he was—not surprisingly–on a humanitarian mission delivering aid to earthquake victims.
Willie Mays: Center fielder Mays was the 1951 Rookie of the Year, but drafted by the Army to fight in the Korean War. He missed almost 300 games, but returned to San Francisco in 1954 to lead the league with a .345 batting average and 41 homers. Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility.
Paul “Bear” Bryant: The longtime Alabama coach played for Alabama himself (the 1934 championship team), then served as a Navy Lieutenant Commander during World War II. As a coach, he racked up six national titles, 13 SEC championships, and 323 wins.
John Wooden: Wooden is Considered the greatest men’s college basketball coach of all time. As head coach at UCLA in the 60s and 70s, he won 10 national titles in 12 years (seven consecutively) and was named coach of the year six times. But he was a player too, at Purdue and then with the NBA, when he enlisted in the Navy and eventually became a lieutenant.
Yogi Berra: The legendary Yankees catcher also served as a gunner during D-Day. A year later, he made his major league debut and launched an epic 18-year career. But just as famous as his stats were his “Yogiisms,” like “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Rocky Bleier: Bleier’s Steelers career had just begun when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. He was seriously injured in an ambush when he took shrapnel in the leg. Doctors told him he would not play football again, but he returned anyway and after two years, became a starter in 1974. When he retired in 1980, Bleier had 3,865 rushing yards, 1,294 receiving yards, 25 touchdowns and four Super Bowl championships.
Shauna Rohbock: As multi-talented as she is service-minded, BYU grad Shauna Rohbock played professional soccer for the San Diego Spirit, then enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard as she launched a bobsled career. Rohbock earned silver in the 2006 Winter Olympics two-woman event (with Valerie Fleming) and placed sixth in the 2010 Games. She also holds multiple World Cup titles.
Ted Williams: Williams had just finished his first Triple Crown season when he enlisted with the Marines in 1942, serving as a flight instructor. In 1952, he was recalled to active duty for the Korean War. In all, he lost five of his 21 playing years with Boston, yet he won the Triple Crown twice, was a 17-time All-Star and was the last player to bat over .400 in a single season.
Joe Louis: The “Brown Bomber” held the heavyweight boxing title from 1937 to 1949, but enlisted as an Army private, assigned to a segregated cavalry unit during World War II. He fought charity events and fought to enroll a group of African-American men in Officer Candidate School–one of whom was Jackie Robinson. When he was released in 1945, he was a Sergeant with the Legion of Merit medal.
David Robinson: After an All-American basketball career at the U.S. Naval Academy, Robinson–“The Admiral”–had to serve two years to fulfill his service. Still, he was still drafted #1 by the Spurs in 1987 and upon his return, won Rookie of the Year in 1990. He played 14 years for the Spurs, picking up two NBA titles, 1995 NBA MVP, and two U.S. Olympic gold medals.
Curt Simmons: In 1950, Simmons pitched a whopping 17 of 25 decisions for the Phillies–but was drafted to Korea with just a month left in the season. Although the Phillies flailed without him, they went on to the World Series–where Simmons could only attend on a military pass as a fan. (The Phillies lost.) He returned in 1952 to lead the National League with six shutouts. He finally got his World Series title with St. Louis in 1964.